Learn about condors at Hathkapasuta River Celebration!

Annette McGee Rasch

The 2022 Hathkapasuta River Celebration is happening at Illinois River Forks State Park from 11 to 6pm this Saturday, June 18. The free family-friendly event will feature hands-on history and nature displays, arts and crafts for kids, the ‘All Species Parade,’ and the popular Recycled-Raft Race.  

“There’ll be live music and a raffle with great prizes donated by local businesses who want to thank the community for their patronage throughout the year,” said event co-organizer Tim Leyba.

“This event celebrates our region’s interconnected natural resources and inspires each of us to care for our environment,” said event co-organizer Suzanne Vautier, “and this year we have a special speaker, Tiana Williams-Claussen, from the Yurok Tribe, who will tell us all about the condors recently released in our region.”

Williams Claussen, a Harvard-educated biologist, is the Director of the Yurok Tribe’s Wildlife Department, which has led the regional effort to bring critically endangered California Condors back to the skies and landscapes of the Pacific Northwest.  

After a 100-year absence, the Northern California Condor Restoration Program (a collaboration between the Yurok Tribe and the Redwood National and State Parks) released three condors last month. Before the year is over several more will join them, laying the foundations for a new flock.

“This project is a model for listening to and following the lead of the park’s original stewards, healing both our relationship with the land and its original people,” said Steve Mietz, Redwood National and State Parks superintendent.

“I’m really excited to see the condors coming back,”  Vautier said. “We’re well within their range. We’ll certainly see them fly over the Illinois Valley and the Kalimopsis wilderness, so we wanted Tiana to come and tell people what they can do to help condors survive. One big problem is lead shot. It’s illegal in California now, but right over the border in Oregon, it’s still being sold.”

“It certainly is an issue when you read the statistics about lead poisoning,” Leyba added, “and not just with condors, but many animals die that way.”

“Lead ammunition left behind in the gut piles of deer and other game currently causes about 50% of known wild condor mortalities,” said Williams-Claussen. She said condors utilize their powerful bills to tear into tough hides, which also makes food available to turkey vultures, ravens, crows, raccoons, foxes and skunks. “Even tiny amounts of lead can kill.”

Williams-Claussen’s team developed the ‘Hunters as Stewards’ program, and based on post-outreach surveys, as many as 95% of hunters indicated they’ll voluntarily make the switch to non-lead ammunition.

“Also, with the loss of other large scavengers such as wolves and grizzly bears, condors become even more important, as their specialized digestive systems can eliminate harmful bacteria and toxins from the environment: including anthrax, botulism and cholera,” she said.

The larger California Condor Recovery Program, guided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is a huge multi-state coalition composed of biologists, technicians and advocates from agencies, conservation and community groups, tribes, zoos and universities.

“We want people to respect the condors,” Leyba said. “It’s about our relationship to the land, and the creatures that inhabit it. If it wasn’t for the people involved in this big partnership to save the condors, they’d be a bygone animal.”

Williams-Claussen draws a stark correlation between the near extinction of the condors and her own tribe’s experience:

“Tragically, our world was almost torn apart. The California Gold Rush ignited a wildfire of greed that nearly consumed our home,” she said. “A surge of new people arrived, overharvesting wildlife for food and profit, razing old-growth redwoods, scarring the land, diverting and draining the water and laying waste to the carefully balanced ecosystem of which we — and the condors — were a part. Many condors were shot for sport, collected for museum displays and poisoned with bait put out to eradicate grizzly bears and wolves, and this loss of the condors left a gaping holes in the ecosystem.”

Only 22 condors were left in the world, struggling to survive in Southern California in the 1980’s. They were all captured and breeding programs in several zoos began. Today there’s about 500 condors –  with 300 in the wild, spread out over four western locations. They’ve successfully reproduced in all locations, though Williams-Claussen said “there’s not yet enough new individuals to offset mortality.”

So the CCRP championed the Yurok Tribe’s condor program: because with lower human population densities, fewer anthropogenic threats and more abundant resources, Yurok homelands provide good cause for hope. Also, DDT levels are substantially lower in sea animals washed up on the shores in this region than in other areas.

“The Yurok’s are starting them off – it’s awesome,” Leyba said, “and through a carbon-credit program the tribe was able to buy back more of their native land in the Redwoods, and that provides more sanctuary for the condors.”

The  release site is a secure facility near the mouth of the Klamath River – and for the next 20 years, up to six more birds will be released annually! Williams-Claussen hopes wild condor populations will become self-sustaining in her lifetime.

“Budding condor enthusiasts” from around the world are tuning into the Yurok Tribe’s live Condor Cam to catch the wildlife drama. With carcasses set out for the birds, the freed birds come and go at will, feeding alongside wild turkey vultures and ravens  – sometimes chasing them off by charging with their giant wings open. Or the condors might be bathing, preening, roosting, cuddling, or playing: one day a condor was rolling a skull around. They also visit with other condors still inside the enclosure.

With a wingspan of nearly 10 feet, condors are the largest flighted birds in the world and can weigh up to 23 pounds. They can live up to 60 years, and according to Williams Claussen, “they’re intelligent social beings.” Condors don’t vocalize much – just some grunts and hisses, so their communication is about body language. With tilts of the head or eye movements, condors express an array of intentions and moods.

Many condor watchers say they’re “elegant” birds – and they’re certainly masters of flight: condors can catch an uplifting thermal and soar much of the day without ever flapping their wings. 

“We say that prey-go-neesh (condor) carries our beliefs, our energy, our prayers, when we’re asking for the world to be in balance,” Williams-Claussen said, adding how in Yurok tradition the condor is a revered being. A gentle being.

Hathkapasuta is put on by the Cultural and Ecological Enhancement Network (CEEN), an Illinois Valley-based nonprofit organization that hosts a variety of programs to help enrich sustainable connections between people and the land. Originally organized by the late George Fence along with Menno Kraii and Roger Brandt, the festival went on hiatus until CEEN resurrected it  because “the community had really enjoyed it,” Leyba said.

For more information about participating in the Recycled-Raft-Race (which will launch around 3:30 pm) or the parade, call 541-291 -8860. 

Check out the condor cam: www.yuroktribe.org/yurok-condor-live-feed or learn more at: https://www.facebook.com/YurokCondors